Alec Berg ('Barry' and 'Silicon Valley'), Pamela Adlon ('Better Things'), Whitney Cummings ('Roseanne'), Michael Schur ('The Good Place'), Amy Sherman-Palladino ('The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel') and Justin Simien ('Dear White People') deconstruct the role and fate of humor in a culture where "outrage is a recreational activity."
"One of the things that 'Peak TV' has created," notes Alec Berg, "is this need to stand out." The 49-year-old showrunner behind HBO comedies Barry and Silicon Valley is surrounded on this April afternoon by five fellow writer-producers gathered for The Hollywood Reporter's annual Comedy Showrunner Roundtable, and each of them is nodding in agreement. "And one of the ways you can do that," Berg completes his thought, "is by doing stuff that's scarier or more controversial — taking on topics that, 'Oh, can we talk about that?' "
The others at the table — Better Things' Pamela Adlon, 51; Roseanne's Whitney Cummings, 35; The Good Place's Michael Schur, 42; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Amy Sherman-Palladino, 52; and Dear White People's Justin Simien, 35 — have all taken on scary stuff. Simien's Netflix dramedy explores the often-taboo topics of race and racism; Adlon's Peabody-winning FX half-hour offers an unvarnished look at working motherhood; and, of course, Cummings' hugely popular Roseanne revival — which, six weeks after this interview, will be yanked off the air by ABC after its star fires off a racist tweet — drilled full-bore into such subjects as drugs, guns and politics. "Our job is not to take care of people's feelings," says Cummings (she would announce her departure from Roseanne on May 18, nine days before its cancellation). "Our job is to make people think and make them laugh and make them talk." And so these showrunners took an hour to think and laugh and talk about pushing the envelope, their behind-the-scenes battles and the perilous state of comedy today.
When was the last time either you were nervous or the network, studio, producers were nervous about a storyline?
WHITNEY CUMMINGS (Nodding to Sherman-Palladino) Roseanne was your first show, it's probably my last. (Laughter.)
AMY SHERMAN-PALLADINO Oh, we have so many drinks ahead of us.
CUMMINGS But a big part of my involvement in the show, because it stars a character and person who voted for Trump, was that I was the progressive lib-tard in the room, and I really wanted to dig into the hypocrisies and all the hot-button issues that we're all talking about. So, they have a gun in the house and the story was that they can't find it, and I really wanted the 5-year-old to find it. She was going to come out and be holding it, and it made everyone very uncomfortable, which is why I wanted to do it. Because kids find guns in their homes and I thought for a multicam this could be incendiary and interesting and start a conversation and show the dangers inside the home of these kinds of choices. And the network — everyone was pretty freaked out about it. And I fought really hard and it was a hill that I died on. We didn't end up shooting that, and then Parkland happened and I was like, I …
JUSTIN SIMIEN Should've done it.
CUMMINGS Should have done it? You think I should have done it?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Oh, I think you should've done it.
CUMMINGS I was like, "I'm sure they would've made us cut it later anyway."
PAMELA ADLON Absolutely.
SIMIEN They would have.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Or they would've done what they do, which I think is always a pussy move, which is, delay it. Because if you believed in it in the moment, then you believed in it. And even if it takes on a different tone … My show came of age, for the eight episodes that I've done so far, when the Weinstein case and all that started happening, and suddenly people were like, "Oh, it takes on new relevance." I'm like, "Really? Because women have been gettin' a finger up their twat for like 20 years." Longer than that.
CUMMINGS There was another story that we ended up not doing because Time's Up started while we were in production and there was a big conversation of, "Do we do a #MeToo, sexual harassment story?" And it was like, "This feels opportunistic."
MICHAEL SCHUR Yeah.
CUMMINGS We're objectifying a movement that's about objectifying women, how are we any better? And the more interesting thing would just be to portray women who are going through this and dealing with it …
SIMIEN People will make the connection.
CUMMINGS Yeah. I think subtlety instead of trying to force your agenda into something.
ALEC BERG When we started shooting Barry, this was before the Weinstein thing, before the #MeToo thing, and there are a couple of things in the show that reviewers have pointed to and said, "Oh, they took on the #MeToo movement there." There is a scene where a character is talking to an agent who may or may not sign her and he basically says he's deciding whether to fuck her or sign her, which is something I had heard an agent say. And it was like, "Whoa," that one went in the memory bank.
Does it change how you approach comedy now that this is so much a part of the conversation? Pamela, you've had no shortage of shitty men on your show …
ADLON I think it's very dangerous to make your content go into a safer direction. So, this conversation about the gun is so interesting to me, because my knee-jerk reaction is, "Of course not." And then when you guys said, "Yes the gun," I'm like, "Yes the gun." (Laughter.) Because you want to see the wrong behavior sometimes.
SIMIEN And you want that argument, too. You want that conversation.
ADLON I need the wrong behavior modeled for me. It makes me think about myself. That's the way I like to see things in my show. Before all of the #MeToo stuff happened, I would get the obligatory letter from my network, "Dear showrunners, please hire women." And I would be like, "What the fuuuuck?" (Laughter.) "Please hire all diversities and whatever." I'm like, "Is this not …?" (Motions to herself.) So, now I have this [#MeToo] to tackle and people are like, "You can address this all directly in your show. This is your voice and your show." And it's like, "Everybody just relax. Let me try to maintain the climate of my show." When you were talking about the [agent] in Barry, did it date you because you had that and nobody would dare do that [now]?
BERG No, but it was interesting that it changed the context of how people received it.
CUMMINGS The joke? It wasn't funny anymore.
ADLON That's right. There is a stank on everything, and it can't just be dirty or funny. And when do we ever go back to that? We want to be able to tell whatever story we want to tell. My network never says no to anything, never mandates anything, but when it came to the storyline at the beginning of the season about my 16-year-old daughter dating a 35-year-old, they were like, "Eeehhh." I was like, "I don't know that she slept with him. I honestly don't. He is procuring her. I want to tell this story."
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Comedy is heading into a very dangerous place right now, and I am very worried about it.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO If we start not being able to do stories because viewed through the lens of #MeToo [it's objectionable] or if you can't have anyone have an apolitical position or [must be] thinking about the message that it's sending out, there is no comedy. Comedy is over, it's dead.
BERG It feels like there is this thing that's like outrage is a recreational activity now.
CUMMINGS I need to hate something.
BERG Right? Where it's just like, "What are you gonna do?" Well, I might go to the gym or I'm just gonna rage on the internet for an hour.
SIMIEN People literally stopped at the word "white" in my title and were like, "He's causing a genocide for white people."
SHERMAN-PALLADINO And unfortunately comedy, at its core, is a tool that is aimed at oppression and sadness and the worst in human nature, not the best. You don't get comedy off of great, fun, happy, delightful people. I'm sure Mandela's lovely, but he ain't funny. You don't go to that well for great comedy. You go to the worst of people or the shallowness or the pain and the outcasts, and that's what makes shit funny. And suddenly it feels like we're entering this world where it's like you've just got to show wonderful, terrific, delightful things.
SIMIEN Which is so boring.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO So boring.
BERG Also, it disarms satire completely.
CUMMINGS There was a big issue on our show whether Dan Conner [can call] undocumented workers who are now taking his jobs illegals. There was all this hullabaloo on set about, "Can you say 'illegals'? That's an offensive word and we're not supposed to say that, that's not the PC term." But this man would not know what the right word is. So if we have him saying "undocumented workers," it just feels false and you're not telling the story.
ADLON Oh God, no.
SIMIEN The thing about doing a "black show" is that, within my own community, there's all this representation stuff. You cannot cast a black show, let me tell you, without thinking of all of these things — like, that your skin tones are evenly matched and what are you saying about light-skinned people. And on one side of it, I feel like black people and women, for instance, all of us have the right to feel a lot of outrage, but then there is an addiction to it that, at a certain point, is no longer productive.
CUMMINGS Oh, yeah.
SIMIEN So, my thing is if you tell the truth it might have a moment where people are up in [arms] and there might be some "hullabaloo-ing," but it stands the test of time.
CUMMINGS There was all this feedback [for us] like, "This show is part of the problem." And I'm just like, "He got elected before this show came back." Like, her Twitter feed is her Twitter feed. But everyone just needs something to blame right now. And it's such a scary time and we're all so full of fear.
SIMIEN We finished season one the day Trump won, which was bittersweet in so many ways, but everyone assumed that it was a response to it because the season came out months after he had taken office. And it was like, "No, we just told the truth." Like, racism didn't begin when Donald Trump took office … (Laughter.)
Are the things that you expected to be controversial the things that became so? Whitney, did you foresee the backlash to the Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat joke?
CUMMINGS There are times where I'm like, "This is offensive, but this is what they would say when no one is watching and when they don't have a bunch of lib-tard people controlling what they say." So, I found a lot of times my job was just to go, "If you feel that that's what this person would say behind closed doors, then let's go with it."
SIMIEN Everyone needs to see themselves and what's happening. And see others.
CUMMINGS There are a lot of things where if this person was related to me over Thanksgiving, I'd yell at them about their beliefs. But there are certain people who talk like this, and to not represent them scares me because then they want to feel represented and seen and heard and they go do it by voting stupid.
BERG And representing someone is not the same thing as endorsing them. There is this super-weird thing where it's like if you put that on the show that means that you support that — that you're speaking in favor of [it].
CUMMINGS I don't like any of the characters I ever write for. (Laughter.)
SIMIEN Honestly, it's really the throwaway celebrity jokes that I always get the most shit for.
SCHUR The finale of [The Good Place] aired the night before Trump was inaugurated. And we had a flashback to Kristen Bell's character walking through a grocery store, and the idea was to present a person who was the most selfish person in the world. She went through and she bonked into someone, didn't care. She dropped a bunch of stuff and didn't care. She read a magazine and then tossed it back at the thing where she took it from. And the song that was playing in the grocery store was "My Way" by Frank Sinatra because it's the ultimate tribute to selfishness. And the next night, Trump was inaugurated and his first dance was to "My Way" by Frank Sinatra.
ADLON Oh, my God.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO But, also, we have to accept that there are going to be very offensive jokes, jokes that cross the line, there's going to be Kathy Griffin holding up Donald Trump's head. And I gotta tell ya, I was very disappointed in the Hollywood community for not coming to her defense. They hung that girl out to dry. I didn't think it was funny, I wouldn't have personally thought, "Hey, this is gonna be my [thing]," but who the fuck cares? Comedians are supposed to go out there and push the boundaries so that the rest of us know where the fuck they are.
CUMMINGS I texted her.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Well, good.
Many of you have been at this a while, working on shows like Seinfeld or the original Roseanne. What could you get away with then that you can't now?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Roseanne was my first job and I was new to writing, so when I got there, I didn't realize that she had banned the studio and the network from the show. We worked in a cocoon. It wasn't until I got onto my next show that [I realized that]. We had a bad table read and I was gathering up my stuff to go back to my office and [the writers] were all sitting there. And I'm like, "What the fuck are you sitting there for?" And they were like, "We have to get notes." I'm like, "From who?" And I look and there's a line of people in the same suit with a pencil on page three and I'm like, "Who are …?" Literally, they thought I was from outer space. So, the thing about Roseanne is that I don't remember a time where we couldn't do anything that we wanted, mostly because nobody was allowed in the room to tell us we couldn't.
SCHUR When I started on The Office, which was my first job in L.A., the network had done some research. They asked people who considered themselves to be huge fans of a show …
ADLON That's always bad.
SCHUR They said how many episodes do you watch, and the answer was one in four.
SIMIEN Oh, wow.
SCHUR So, the people who considered themselves die-hard fans of the show watched a quarter of the episodes and, as a result, [NBC was] telling us that we couldn't have anything serialized. And that was a problem because the Jim and Pam relationship was serialized. But for a while in the first couple of seasons, we had to [keep it] very, very light. It had to be just the tiniest little dollop of serialization. Now, if your show isn't serialized, at least on a network, they're like, "Where is the cliffhanger, man?" And it's because of Amazon and Netflix, I think, where they are just full-on saying this is a drug and we are trying to hook you on the drug and when you get to the end of the hit, it's like, "What's going to make you watch another one?"
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Yeah, on Gilmore Girls we had that, too. They didn't want it to be serialized, and it's like …
SCHUR "I don't know what to tell ya." (Laughter.)
BERG The question I get most about the HBO shows is, "Can I watch them all at once?" And if you say, "No, no, you have to watch one a week," they go, "I'll wait."
ADLON Oh, people refuse.
CUMMINGS People are like royalty now. Like, "Where is my …"
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Yes, serve me.
Do you write differently knowing that?
SIMIEN I get to say [to Netflix], "No, I don't think we need that extra line of exposition again," because, [most likely], they just watched [the prior episode]. Or maybe they didn't but I get to use that excuse a few times to [avoid being] too heavy-handed with things.
BERG I don't know what you guys have found, but my fear [of putting multiple episodes online] is it goes up and a few days later [it's gone]. The amount of time that we put into a show, to have it be available and then, like, three days later it's gone seems terrifying to me.
SIMIEN It's super weird. And as an artist, obviously I got into writing for instant gratification (Laughs), so it is awkward to be like, "I spent a year of my life, it's up? OK, cool. So, I'll go to the gym?"
SCHUR It's a huge bummer.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Yeah, but will that last? I don't have the answer. I'm just wondering if it will because people are so …
SIMIEN People want that convenience.
One of the conversations that's come up a lot lately is about being able to separate art from artist — can you and should you?
ADLON Well, I am personally so not into Scientology at all but I'm obsessed with The Handmaid's Tale and [Scientologist] Elisabeth Moss. So, there's a good example.
BERG That's obviously becoming a really interesting conversation. I don't know if you guys ever saw the Carmichael Show episode about is it OK to go see Bill Cosby do stand-up? It was a deep dive into: Just because he makes you laugh on a TV show at home, do you have to stop enjoying that? It got into Woody Allen and all that stuff. And I don't have the answer, but I do think that's becoming more and more a question.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO There is also a difference between a systematic rapist and somebody who had some creepy things in his personal life, but you don't fucking know what the hell went on, and I worry [that] it's all being lumped together. Look, I wasn't an actress, so I didn't go through that culture of being paraded in front of [men] — though writers have their own version of sexism and being the only girl in a writers room was a whole other nightmarish experience. But it wasn't the same as, like, "Go meet this guy in a hotel room in your little skirt, as a piece of meat, if you want to win an Oscar like Gwyneth Paltrow." That is a whole different predatory culture. So, those kinds of guys, go at it. Haul 'em off, see ya, enjoy the island of misfit boys that we're sending you all to. But then there are the other things where you can just point fingers at people and destroy lives. I go back to blacklisting, I go back to witch trials, I go back to Dalton Trumbo, and that makes me uncomfortable.
SIMIEN Culture is a pendulum. It swings too far in every direction. In this particular instance, it's so tricky because, with Twitter and social media, it's like we're being conditioned to think of things in very black-and-white terms. And we're human beings, we're capable of seeing the gray areas.
Where is that pendulum now?
SIMIEN Women have been going through some bullshit for a long time, so I'm OK with the overcorrection. I think there is a line, and there is a danger, but I'm also happy that, as an artist, I can talk about that in my work because there's nuance to it.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO I'm just going to say it, flat out: When there are more women onstage, the stage is better. It's not that I don't think that men are wonderful — I am married and I love men and, frankly, in my career, men have been the only people who have ever helped me. I have worked for several strong women, and they have done nothing, not a thing, to further other women — the first person they're gonna take down is another woman. Whereas I've worked for some wonderful men who have seen talent and have helped women in their careers.
CUMMINGS Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO And part of it was because if you [as a woman] got in, do you want to let everybody else in? Because you're in and you're kind of special and it's all going to come to you. I get the mentality. But powerful women who have gotten there have not helped solve the problem, and now they are forced to take care of each other and back each other up, and I think that's fabulous.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.